Orientalism, still sexy.

Carlin Romano, a professor of philosophy and “critic at large” for the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviews immunologist Shereen El Feki’s forthcoming book Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, calling her investigation into the sex lives of Arabs courageous, bold, and trailblazing. I’m looking forward to the book’s release, but a major red flag was raised for me when I read this:

Her recurring theme? That the Arab world “was once open to the full spectrum of sexuality and could be so again.” One of the ironies El Feki regularly returns to is the reversal that has taken place in the so-called clash of civilizations between the West and the Arab world. In Flaubert’s time, and in the age of the Prophet himself, both Westerners and Arabs saw Arabic culture as unabashedly sensual and sexual, and not un-Islamic for that.

Perhaps El Feki discusses this in her book, but Romano seems to ignore that during Flaubert’s time, the Muslim world was imagined, defined and constructed as a place of unabashed sensuality. Furthermore, Europeans–who were both titillated and repulsed by Arab sexuality–saw it as evidence that Arabs were immoral and inferior. This is, of course, an important aspect of orientalism, and ideas about Arab sexuality as brutal and hedonistic are alive and well today (think the Saudi prince’s harem in season one of Homeland).

Romano claims that the Arab world has “suffered under centuries of misguided interpretations of Islam and sex,” though it’s not clear what he means by misguided, who he thinks is misguiding whom, or whether El Feki teaching housewives about vibrators is a sign that Arabs/Muslims are coming out of these dark ages. Furthermore, it’s not clear whether embracing progressive western sexual values itself constitutes emergence from a dark age of sexual ignorance and repression. Who gets to define what normative sexuality in the Middle East should look like? What gives those outside of Arab or Muslim societies the privilege of determining how normative sexuality should or shouldn’t be expressed?

Romano isn’t wrong that there’s a great deal of misinformation about sexuality in Arab or Muslim culture (which seems to be construed as one and the same), but he doesn’t dig any deeper than that assumption.

I do appreciate that he highlights “the compatibility of vibrant sex with Islam,” and I agree that Muslim cultures frequently cannibalize many of these understandings (and applaud the work of women like Heba Qotb and Widad Lootah) However, this cultural dynamic is also part of the process through which Western ideas about Islamic sexuality manifest. Fida Sandjakdar writes:

The practice of dominant cultural constructions of sexuality among many Muslims has resulted in Islam being viewed as a religion of sexual suppression and shame. Divergent practices such as forbidding all foreplay or desiring only virgin women have been falsely attributed as Islamic practices. As a result, Muslim communities around the world have found themselves the focus of speculation, misinformation, fear and derision regarding their sexual beliefs and practices. Over the centuries, some of these perceptions have become powerful enough to reciprocally influence how Muslims perceive themselves.

It’s worth having serious conversations about sexuality, although we should also be sensitive to another orientalist tendency, as Sara Yasin puts it “an age old obsession with taking a peek into the harem.” Yasin adds that “[t]he secret sex lives of barbaric Muslim men and their oppressed wives is not a relic of a Colonial past, but still something that continues to enthrall us today.”

On that note, Yale anthropologist Marcia Inhorn’s most recent book looks at the emergence of “the new Arab man.” Rejecting the western stereotype, “Arab men in the new millennium do not want to be viewed—nor do they view themselves—as uncaring, unfeeling, polygamous patriarchs.”

Again, I’m eager to read the book, but I hope that El Feki problematizes some of the questions we ask about Arab or Muslim sexuality just as much as she provides answers.

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